Archive for the 'News' Category

Why Pilotless Aircraft (Can Be) a Bad Deal

Since I work in a small corner of the information security space, I found this article to be alarming and yet quite expected eventually. I’m a bit surprised didn’t happen sooner, and it certainly won’t be the final occurrence.

These are unmanned weapons, folks. Imagine if, instead of being weapon systems, that they carried passengers, as some would have them do.

The Air Force deserves a lot of credit for being straight up about it, and I hope they get it cleaned up soon.

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Perhaps the Most Pointless Use of an Airplane

In this summer of overheated energy costs, overheated weather, overheated politics, overheated traffic, and overheated expectations, this made me smile.

Phoenix, Arizona, where I currently hang, is like Los Angeles in many ways (excepting politics). With weather usually sunny and clear, it shares much of the same crime, crowding, traffic, smog, expense, and car-centered transportation monoculture as L.A. does 400 miles to the west. So when I read about the impending doom concerning the closure of the 405 for construction, I could relate to it. Local officials overblew the risks, sure, but problems were indeed possible.

I expected people to try interesting stuff to work around it. What I didn’t expect was that one low-cost airline would engage in a pointless publicity stunt to move 150 people 38 miles at a time using an Airbus (helicopter charters didn’t surprise me, however). This just appeared ludicrous. The infrastructure, resources, and time it would take to get all these folks to the airport, through security, boarded, cleared, in the air, separated from other airplanes,  and back out the other end is simply astounding for moving such a short distance.

Of course, I understand this was never about transportation, it was all about marketing. Regardless, never one to normally disparage the use of an airplane, this just seemed obscene to my sensibilities.

So, imagine my pleasure when these guys on bikes beat them door-to-door. And not by just a little, either, the airline got it’s butt kicked by over an hour.

See, much as I love to fly, I’m also a born-again-cyclist that cycle-commutes often. To see these guys authoritatively nail up their point that there is a place for bikes as useful transportation in an urban setting seemed dead-on. Conversely, using a 170,000 pound airplane that’s about as inefficient as it can possibly be operating at 5000 feet to do the job is Just Plain Wrong.

To be fair, to maintain their needed 26mph average, the riders were pacelining. Normal commuters would rarely find a wheel to follow, and it takes more than 2 or 3 riders to maintain that tempo for very long. In addition, the cabdriver got lost leaving the airport, adding to the door-to-door time for the air travelers (although it still wouldn’t have changed the outcome).

I’m impressed. Allez…

“AZ48” Shelved

Per this prior post, I noted that the California attempt to constrain all flight schools under expensive “big operator” restrictions spreading to Arizona, as I was concerned it might. Why can’t I make investment calls this well?

The AZ PPSE board met Thursday 8/26 to discuss the possibility of part 61 flight schools requiring board oversight (with it’s attendant costs). 2 days prior, I’d received an e-mail from NAFI calling attention to this. I spread it around to a few local folks I know with a “pass it on” note.

Next question: Attend the AZ PPSE board meeting? I had other things to do, but my curiosity was piqued, it wasn’t a long trip, and I thought strength-in-numbers might actually matter. So, why not…

Enough interested folks attended such that the board decided to move the agenda item to the front. (Owners/operators of several local schools, some of whom I knew, made an appearance.)  After some board discussion explaining that they had done a fair amount of research on the differences between part 61 training and part 141 schools, and concluding that they did appear to grasp the difference between the two, discussion was opened up for public comment.

I’m not going to name names, or completely describe what I saw happen next. Not in writing anyway. I will point these things out:

  • One SAFE member did an outstanding job of making the case that recent headline-making school failures (which led us here) are nothing more than simple fraud. He was articulate, reasoned, and quite well prepared.
  • AOPA’s Western Region Representative presented a well prepared statement that few could argue with. Perhaps the California case was a rehearsal?
  • Multiple local school owners also helped to confirm the board’s understanding of the differences (and similarities) between 61 and 141 schools. After they spoke, the board appeared to be more confident in their understanding of what 61 training is all about.

In the end, the board had a strong majority opinion that no state statute exists which would put oversight of part 61 training operations under their supervision. Existing cases of fraud are up to the State’s Attorney to prosecute, as always. One implication: If the state legislature wanted to take up the issue of deposit protection for students (of any kind) asked to sign over large amounts, that was their discretion to do so. As far as the PPSE board was concerned, no more actions were warranted.

End of story, so I hope. Within the hour, notices of the decision were posted by SAFE, AOPA, and NATA. Clearly, lots of concerned parties were watching. Fool ’em once…

And, by attending, I actually understand how this mess got started. It sure isn’t a pretty sight.

AB48 Contagion

Remember my prior squawk regarding California’s AB48, and that the thinking it promoted was likely to spread?

Today comes an email notice courtesy of NAFI stating that the Arizona PPSE board is considering taking up the same kind of action. Of particular note, the notice appears to target part 61 operations for some peculiar reason. That may just be a coincidence, we’ll have to see.

They certainly didn’t waste any time.

The upside is that someone at NAFI took notice and got the word out ahead of time. That’s good to see.

You’re Not Leaving Las Vegas

It’s been on a curse on all of us since 2001, a 30nm ring of “protected” airspace follows the President wherever he goes, halting all aviation operations besides scheduled air carriers and military  (Never mind that actual hijackers historically have an affinity for “scheduled air carriers”).

When this has happened in the past, the published TFR typically had a procedure for departures or arrivals to reliever airports in outlying areas. It allowed for direct arrivals or departures only (no transitions, traffic watch, cropdusting, training, etc.) under direct ATC supervision, but at least it was there. You could get in or out, and get on with your business, and that truly helped.

Not anymore, apparently. DHS has apparently chosen to omit this option from the TFR. Simple omission, or an unspoken shift in policy?

True, it’s only for short period. But the really obnoxious part is the reason he’s there: not for a head of state, or a meeting, or an emergency. He’s simply there to fundraise for his party.

That’s right. The US government is using taxpayer dollars to prevent citizens from traveling so that one party can raise money to spit at the other party, so they can spit back, ad nauseum.

(Never mind that he shut down most Hawaiian airspace for 2 weeks last holiday season, just for a vacation. Most everyone in their local aviation economy got a 2 week furlough at the peak of their peak season.).

Did someone simply make a mistake? You tell me…

AB 48 and the Deafening Silence

First, what is AB 48 (a.k.a. California Assembly Bill 48)? It’s a California legislative measure to remove an exemption for flight schools that will require them conform to certain financial and organizational standards as otherwise is required for postsecondary educational institutions. It requires fees to be paid into a fund to protect students, among other actions.

So why on earth should I care about AB 48 ? I live, work, and teach predominately in Arizona, after all…

Reason #1: In my “day profession”, I’m a stone’s throw away from needing to work (and, by implication, live) in the state of California. Simply put, that’s often where the best opportunities for us techies often are, especially after 2001 dot-com crash. As much as I love to fly, I’ve also found that I love to teach. And if I want to keep teaching, then this regulation may well impact me if it ever comes to pass that I need to live and work there.

Reason #2: We aviators are dependent on a set of “letter groups” to speak for our interests in Washington, as well as in state legislatures and city halls all across the country. If said groups don’t do their job, we don’t have a voice. It’s up to us to make sure they’re on-task.

Reason #3: This type of thinking by one state government, left unquestioned, could spread to other states.

Apparently, AB 48 has been around since fall 2009. I didn’t know anything about it until I crossed paths with Scott Spangler on his blog post regarding the issue a few weeks ago. I would not have known otherwise, and it certainly got my attention.

So, why is California taking this action? Ostensibly, the focus is to try to protect students that pay for education up front.

To that point, flight schools can often be financially dodgy organizations. It’s not an easy or simple business. Costs are extremely high and often unpredictable, and there is strong competition for students. Since the costs to the student are high, prospective students are often forced to comparison shop for an education based on price, yet they have little view into (or comprehension of) the financial viability of any one organization when they’re shopping. Simply put, they can’t always tell what the financial risks are at face value, yet the schools are often selling them on a dream, so rational thinking doesn’t always ensue.

This has had consequences in the past, more than once, especially when it comes to schools that require full payment up front for a professional pilot training program. Sometimes such organizations end up operating as virtual pyramid schemes.

One such case that literally hit home was Silver State Helicopters a couple of years ago. It certainly appeared like an OK organization from the outside, what with nice shiny offices, new aircraft, lots of locations, heavy recruiting, and glamorous advertising, all the apparent hallmarks of a “quality” operator to the uninitiated. To lock in the cost for the program, students paid for the package up front, often using a student loan. But in practice, Silver State had incoming students funding the training for existing students. When the incoming student money flow took a downward bump, they quickly ran out of operating revenue and quickly went bankrupt. Consequentially, their entry and intermediate level students were stuck with monstrous loans (which are not dischargable in bankruptcy, in case you didn’t know) and incomplete or nonexistent training. A dead dream with a great big bill, in short. (And yes, a friend of the family got caught up in this mess before I could say or do anything to help, and I’m very pissed off about it).

So by taking this legislative action, the state of California is going to fix situations like this and help out the little guy, right?

Not so fast, folks.

Remember that the state of California has a budget crisis of major proportion that’s not going away anytime soon. Any sofa cushion that they can find revenue from, they’re going to look under it. Therefore, it’s not a big stretch to say that the fund that’s there to “protect” the students is also there to support the state’s balance sheet, just like FAA operating funding ends up masking the federal deficit. Under this viewpoint, the bill could be considered just another small business tax passed under the deceptive guise of consumer protection. It’s not overtly stated as a tax, but it might as well be one.

Now, I don’t fully understand the ramifications of this bill yet. There seems to be confusion as to who it applies to. Does it apply to part 61 schools as well as the “formal” part 141 schools? There’s some claim that it applies to independent instructors as well. Does it only apply to schools that are running a “professional pilot program”, or simply anyone that provides preparation for a commercial certificate? I just don’t know yet.

What I do know, and I’m a little upset about, is that I’ve heard virtually zero on the topic from 2 of  3 associations that I think have a vested interest in the outcome. That’s a serious problem, and I really don’t understand the silence.

SAFE posted this press release a day before hearings were held in Sacramento on Monday, June 7. They admittedly heard of the issue at the last minute (understand that SAFE is a young organization just getting on it’s feet and formed because the existing instructor-representing organization wasn’t acting in its member’s interest), but they apparently made a showing to add balance to the discussion.  Good work, guys! I’m glad you’re working on it, and let me know if I can help in any way.

AOPA posted an associated article on May 19. Apparently, they knew this was happening, but I simply didn’t hear anything more on the topic, and I find this silence really strange. I don’t know if they were present in Sacramento on the 7th to help state a counterpoint. I hope they were. After all, AOPA is justifiably concerned that a dearth of new pilots will ultimately choke the lifeblood out of the aviation ecosystem over time. Since AB 48 may mean that learning to fly in California is about to become vastly harder to do, I’d expect them to be all over it. But I just don’t see evidence of this.

(In fact, it recently seems like I get junk mail once or twice a week compliments of AOPA advertising some product or service only incidentally associated with the association’s mission. This seems to have happened concurrently with a leadership change. Guys, I really don’t appreciate being monetized like that, especially when important political issues appear to go unaddressed…).

NAFI seems to be completely absent from this discussion. They should have been all over it. Unfortunate, but I’m not surprised, since it’s hard to tell who they actually serve at this point.

I’d really love to know what happened in Sacramento on Monday. If any readers were actually there, please comment.

Do I have an opinion on this? Opinions are like…oh, you know, everyone has one…

While this looks to be well intentioned legislation on the surface, it has significant costs for a lot of small businesses. Some of those small businesses will simply decide to stop providing flight training. Perhaps some weak ones should, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s some very good ones out there that shouldn’t quit, yet will be forced to anyway. It’s effectively assumed that very few independent instructors will consider the cost and hassle of compliance worthwhile.

Therefore, it would seem to me like the sensible determining factor for protection under such a bill would be this: If your training business requires advance cash investment on the part of the student, then a higher standard applies, and your organization really does need to be subject to financial and organizational scrutiny. However, if your operation is working on a pay-as-you-go basis (as most small schools and independents do), then such oversight is unwarranted. If you’re not paying up front, no “protection” is needed.

But, hey, that’s just me…

Update: After I wrote this, I noticed Scott has another post on the topic. His last paragraph here is dead-on; we can’t depend on associations and journalists to figure this out for us, we need to be involved ourselves. Clearly so. I may disagree with Scott on minor points, but I can certainly back him up on this one.

2010 AK Aviation Trade Show

I had a chance to attend the 2010 Alaska Aviation Trade Show over the weekend of May 1-2. The Alaska Airmen’s Association holds this event once a year in (and around) the FedEx maintenance hangar at ANC. It’s become quite the event; there’s a significant crowd, and quite a few of the attendees are making a trip from the lower 48 to attend. For the locals, it kicks off the beginning of their summer flying season.

This isn’t your average aviation show. While there are a few pavement-pounder airplanes (and stuff for them) on display, the show is predominated by the fact that much of the business and fun of local flying has to do with getting as far away from pavement and civilization as possible. That makes it distinctly unique.

Arguably, the most popular display on the main floor was the video display in AK Bushwheel’s product booth; it showed a nearly continuous loop of the takeoff/landing contest from the Valdez Fly-In from the prior year. Guys seems to be able to stand and watch this for hours on end.

Two things in the news seemed to stand out in discussions:

  1. The errant Intelsat satellite that carries much of the west-coast WAAS data downlink was a big topic of discussion. It has a distinct impact on operations in western AK. The FAA does have a workaround underway using an alternate satellite, but it will take time to get this working.
  2. The possibility of the end of leaded avgas is a hot issue. It makes sense when one realizes that there are quite a few airplanes working up here that still use high-performance piston engines (many of them radials). The guys that still operate them are justifiably concerned, and don’t want to see service stop where some of these airplanes go. These airplane often go where the jets just can’t…

It’s an enjoyable show. There are some really unique machines on display, and the people that own and fly them are some of the most approachable folks you will find anywhere. It’s definitely worth dropping into if you’re ever in the area in early May.